Monday, July 9, 2012

Swimming With Elephants and Ant Egg Omeletts at the Night Market

Elephants are not difficult to see in Thailand. There are dozens of Elephant "sanctuaries" and tourist attractions where you can see an elephant for a few dollars and get a picture sitting on their backs. Unfortunately they are paraded around everywhere in, more often than not, disturbing situations for the benefit of the tourist. While on the trip I saw Elephants on more than one occasion, made to work with limping legs, still bleeding from prod marks behind their ears, and in various states of poor health. Because of this, I put in hours looking for the right place to go and after narrowing it down to a small handful of reputable places, chose the magical haven that is Patara Elephant Farm.

I had a decent idea of what to expect, I had read hundreds of reviews, and I looked thoroughly into the mission statements of the owners, Pat and Dao. One of the main reasons I chose Patara was because they only allow about 15-20 visitors a day so that each person can be paired with an individual Elephant with that Elephant's Mahout. Money was not their main focus. With their amount of Elephants, and their massive piece of land, they could have shuffled hundreds of visitors in a day, but they don't. I was still not prepared for what my day would entail.

Getting out of the Van that picked us up from our hotel, I was instantly floored by the beauty of the Farmland that Patara is on. Pat is passionate about organic farming and runs his Elephant farm on the same land that his family owns. The hills are so green that Ireland would be ashamed. The grass grows comically thicker and taller, making you feel like you have shrunk into a child sized version of yourself. The air feels cooler in the mountains, surrounded by clouds and jungle and rivers. I was so preoccupied with taking in the beauty of the landscape that I forgot for a moment that I was here to see Elephants. I was not prepared when my scanning eyes landed on a herd of free roaming Elephants nearby, untethered, free of barriers, Ivory tusked males and freckle faced females flapping their ears and eating the incredibly large grass alongside their bumbling babies . I felt that bursting, frantic, pounding in my chest that I feel right before a vertical drop on a rollercoaster. My throat tightened. Replace the dinosaurs with Elephants, and this is almost exactly the moment I had. Being the nerd I am, I actually did yell out to Ryan, "I feel like I am in that scene in Jurassic Park!"

We cross a River where an Elephant was bathing itself and come upon a small clearing of benches where we wait for the rest of the visitors for the day. Piles of corn and bananas are being hoovered up by a pair of mother Elephants and their babies. All of us cautiously stand back - because these are, after all, extremely dangerous and prehistoric looking creatures. Lanky roosters and hens cluck around stealing bits of corn and husk, oblivious to the giant beasts hovering over them, defiantly kicking away corn from under an elephant foot. A baby elephant picks up a bunch of palm fronds and chases away a rooster, looking as awkward and adorable as you can imagine, stumbling over his tree trunk legs and waving his fronds to and fro. His eyes are so wide that you can see the whites and the patches of hair on his head stand up so firmly as if he had stuck his trunk into an electric socket. They are an utterly goofy sight to behold. The other baby stampedes a nearby tree and begins frantically scratching his body against it like Baloo from The Jungle Book. He does this to a soundtrack of guffawing onlookers for at least five minutes. The thin tree bends and quivers under his weight. At 4 feet tall and stronger than a bull, baby is a misleading word. Nonetheless, they are tumbling around, causing mischief and being goofy like typical babies. 

 Look at that chicken on the left, now look at that grass, HUGE.

 The baby elephants attempted first contact

 The mahouts gave us bananas as a friendly offering

I can tell you from experience now that Elephants have big, gooshy, slimy, soft, tongues. Their skin is rough and their hair is so hard and prickly it feels like a bristle brush. They were all so gentle when taking food directly into their mouth, but if you hesitated too long with a banana in hand, you were going to get your arms molested by a slimy, huffing trunk. The are very grabby, the babies have no manners yet, but they are so full of personality.

Each of us was given a traditional mahout tunic to wear for the day, hand made by the women of the tribe that the mahouts come from. The shirts not only make us look way cooler than we are, but help the elephants understand that we are to be trusted, part of the tribe that has been taking care of them for years. Pat, the charming and wonderful owner of the farm sits us all down for a long, impassioned talk about the state of Elephants in Thailand, the way he runs his farm, and what we will be doing for the day. It's hard to summarize his entire talk, but I can walk away from here knowing this is a good man, with great intentions, doing his absolute best with a smile and a great sense of humor. 
 Spraying on sunscreen like a good pale boy

 Modeling Mahout Wear

My mahout for the day, Un (I know I must be spelling it horribly wrong), walks me through the long grass, past piles of herby elephant dung to meet up with the elephant that was chosen for me. MeeMai is both the leader of the herd I was with and a mother of a boisterous 1 year old. She has that beautiful freckled snout that so many Asian Elephants are blessed with coupled with the longest eyelashes I have ever seen. They are at least two inches long. She is beautiful and terrifying all at once. When I first meet her she lets out a low, gutteral rumble that sets my heart racing before she flaps her ears slowly, a sign of contentment. Her baby bumps into me slowly and almost knocks me over.


I have to give due credit here for the pictures you see where I am included in them, and where we are swimming. The lovely Mahouts there took some amazing pictures of us. My Mahout was constantly using my camera to get good shots.

 Goofy baby crawling all over the young adult male. 

We spent a good chunk of time learning from our Mahouts how to keep the Elephants healthy, checking their poop for moisture, smell, and fiber length is crucial. It smells surprisingly earthy, like wet grass and mud. After brushing them, scrubbing them in the river, feeding them, and checking their feet, we were ready to mount them for a hike up to their favorite waterfall to swim in. At Patara, people only ride on the necks bareback because it is the least painful to the elephant. At most other places in Thailand you see these big wooden or metal seats strapped to their backs, depending on the place it can leave deep scars and marks. Honestly, the riding is more terrifying than enjoyable, but we had a long way to go, so it was rather efficient. I got more comfortable with it as we went and I developed a slightly less shoddy form of balance (or lack thereof).


The big elephants quicken their pace when they see the water and immerse their giant bodies into the river while we eat an array of coconut dishes wrapped up in banana leaves. Then we join them.

As if the day wasn't already the most surreal, amazing, adventure I could have ever imagined, swimming in the river with the elephants was beyond my wildest imagination. I never could have guessed in a million years I would ever be so privileged to get to do this, and that's considering I am going to school at a zoo. I think my face says it all. The babies kick their big legs into the air and roll around in a way that they never could under their heavy weight on land. They spray water at us, they wrestle with us, they grab our arms with their trunks and pull us around. We gladly oblige.

This is my definition of heaven. At the end of the day I felt so fulfilled, exhausted, and happy that I felt like I was actually living someone else's life. Before we left, I watched one of the locals carving elephants out of wood, pet an adorable cat, and snapped a picture of my Mahout before hopping back in the van to our hotel. 

My Mahout!

The day was not over. As soon as we got back to the hotel, collapsing on the far from soft bed with legs sore from riding elephants, we had to meet up with our guide and group that we would be trekking into the hilltribes with tomorrow. We all hopped into a songthaew (imagine that little pick up truck, and pack 11 of us into it) and were driven to a questionable location on the edge of town where we were told our itinerary and packing list for the next few days. Some stranger was standing in for our regular guide, who was not in town yet. On the wall was a very much not to scale, handcrafted map of the hilltribe villages and our path through them. In the background a Looney tunes video played for a couple of children. I think we might have been at their house/office, but I will never be sure.

That night, because I like to over extend myself, we went to the Sunday Night Market - one of many night markets in Chiang Mai, but arguably the best. Expanding for blocks on blocks on blocks, the market starts around sunset and goes late into the night, weaving itself around the lit up temples and into alleyways and crevices for as far as you can walk. Depending on how far down the rabbit hole you want to go, you can find anything here to eat, from Pad Thai and Fried Bananas to Omelets filled with bug larvae and cuttlefish on a stick. I'm ashamed to admit I am not very adventurous when it comes to meat, so we played it pretty safe, but we gorged ourself on street food nonetheless. We must have had at least 10 different dishes by the time the night was through. 

 We bought 3 of them. I'm not ashamed.

 She is hand painting those right there

Thai sushi was disgusting

 Delicious fried mashed potato balls. A huge pile of them for 60 cents.

 I asked him what meat was in his dumplings and he squeezed that rubber chicken, which then shook and clucked violently. We got some, of course.

 Making glass unicorns like a boss.

 The walled city

We wandered from stall to stall, passing blind musicians singing karaoke in the middle of the street, listening to the chatter of conversations we couldn't even hope to understand, and simply enjoyed ourselves. The sounds of clashing street performers and the smells of fruits and meats command your attention in all directions. We got 30 minute, 2 dollar foot massages while sipping on freshly made passionfruit smoothies as we watched teenagers play music in panda masks. They take their massaging seriously here, cracking toes, slapping calves and grinding arches. The more you wince, the more they grind, the bigger they smile, "Good! Good!" Stumbling home in the dark, we were serenaded by geckos so large that when one plunked down behind us onto a fallen tin roof I jumped and squeeled. I thought someone had followed us, but it was just a gecko. Just a Gecko, as if I could say that everyday.

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